Heroic strikers changed the world

A swag of great local musos are coming together for the event.

THE 75th anniversary of Australia’s longest-ever strike, by Indigenous pastoral workers in the Pilbara, will be commemorated in Fremantle on May, with organisers saying the port city has a strong connection to the event.

The Pilbara Strike was supported by the local Seamens’ and Lumpers’ Union who black-banned wool from stations which held out against the workers’ demand to be paid a wage. Until then they had worked effectively as slaves, receiving nothing more than basic rations and a little tobacco. Accommodation was primitive if made available at all.

The commemoration, by the 75th Anniversary Working Group, will start with a screening of the acclaimed Pilbara Strike documentary How the West Was Lost at DADAA Cinema on Friday April 30 from 7-9pm.

On Saturday May 1 will be a Stories in the Park family event where yarns of courage, strength and determination will be shared in Fremantle Park on Ellen Street (behind the Lawn Tennis Club) from 3-5pm. 

It will be followed by a Remembering the Strike concert featuring Lois Olney, David Milroy, Dave Johnson, Mike Burns and David Hyams at the new Fremantle Park Sport and Community Centre on Ellen street from 7 – 9pm. Tickets from stickytickets.com.au.

On Sunday members of the working group and supporters will join unionists in the annual May Day march from the Esplanade Reserve from 10am.

AS an Autumn sun heralded day break across the vast Pilbara on a May morning 75 years ago, dozens of Aboriginal station workers woke to a new dawn.

The day had finally come – May 1, 1946. The day to walk.

The workers and their families had secretly prepared for months, but that did not make it any easier. They were about to embark on an heroic and unparalleled strike against their slavery.

What grew from those first tentative steps was a resistance movement that today remains Australia’s longest-ever strike, and which next week celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Living conditions

Despite great danger on that day and for many months following, around 800 strikers began walking off 27 pastoral stations demanding proper pay and better living conditions in their battle for justice. It was the start of a strike with such far-reaching social and industrial consequences that it became known in some circles as the 

“Blackfellas’ Eureka”.

However, for the wider community it has remained largely unknown or acknowledged in the nation’s colonial history.

The first squatters and explorers staked their claims over the Pilbara lands in the 1860s; land that for millennia had belonged to 31 traditional language groups living within sophisticated social, religious and cultural systems.

In the next 80 years, Aboriginal people were disinherited of their lands and forced to work on the sheep – and later cattle – stations for meagre rations and little or no wages; their lives subject to the exploitation and whims of the pastoralists, government agents and legislators.

Many strikers said they lived like slaves.

One strike leader, Nyamal lawman, the late Peter Coppin, observed that: “We lived no better than the cattle but we worked all day for the right to do even that! We were skinny people back then and we lived through plenty of starvation times.”

Another leader, legendary Nyangumarta woman, Daisy Bindi, who led the walk-off by 90 people from Roy Hill station said: “We didn’t live in houses or anything. We had to go down to the creek like kangaroos. We just wanted to be treated like human beings, not cattle.”

The discontent festered with the arrival in the region of Don McLeod, a white man with a permit to employ Aboriginal labour for his contract fencing and well digging work. McLeod witnessed the treatment of the Aboriginal workers and became increasingly disturbed by the inequality and exploitation.

McLeod made strong connections with the Aboriginal men working for him and paid them good wages, in some cases 11 times more that they were receiving from the station bosses. Dissatisfaction grew as word of the disparity spread across the spinifex plains from station to station.

As a result, McLeod was invited in 1942 to explain the concept of a strike to a large lore meeting at Skull Springs where, he said, it was agreed to hold a mass station walk-off once World War II was over. 

May 1 was crucially the start of the shearing season and coincidentally also International Workers’ Day. 

An ingenious plan was hatched to spread the strike date to the station workers with it marked with a cross on hand-drawn calendars on food tin labels, and secretly delivered by strike leaders Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna.

As McKenna told his fellow workers: “We want to better ourselves. We just want better conditions. 

“We’ve been working for the squatters long enough and all we get is a chunk of meat, corned beef, dry bread. We want to walk off all that.”

On the walk-off day, media reported that De Grey station and “at least 11 others” had struck on time. 

Many were initially fearful of joining because by law they could be arrested for leaving. 

But by August, as word spread, many dozens more workers joined during the annual Port Hedland races meeting after they travelled to the track on the horse trucks and by train. 

Squatters

They refused the squatters’ and police requests to return to the stations after the event finished. 

Peter Coppin had a gun puled on him by a policeman during one standoff. Another strike leader, Ernie Mitchell, was arrested but later released.

In the next three years, the strikers set up camps across the Pilbara where families lived and “yandied” for tin and mined minerals such as beryl and tantalite to sell for food and clothing. 

They also collected buffel seed, goat skins and oyster shell at coastal camps to earn enough money to survive. 

Alongside the strike movement, they were openly questioning the laws that governed their lives.

Continued next week

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